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Not Only Built 4 Cuban Bronx

Representing Cuba culturally, all over the world
photo: David Ellis

Alamar, Cuba is by far the largest public housing project in the world. Construction started in the early 1970s with the help of Soviet architects, and the projects—located a few miles east of Havana—now house 300,000 people in over 2000 buildings. And they're still expanding. Alamar is the cradle of hip-hop in Cuba, and home to the National Hip-Hop Festival; Cuba's South Bronx, you could call it. It's surprising, though, that hip-hop didn't find its home in one of Havana's hipper, more urban neighborhoods: Old Havana, Vedado, or San Miguel. Alamar is a "new community." Most of the people living there were the new married couples and their children of the 1970s and '80s that moved out of their parents' houses in Havana proper. Alamar is also located on higher ground, so Alamareños get the best reception of Miami TV and radio stations. Lucky them.

Hip-hop is hot throughout Cuba, and has been for a while. In 1980, someone brought a copy of Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" down to the island, and "people flipped out," says Pablo Herrera, a rap producer and English professor in Havana. "People were dancing the pigüe [breakdance] on street corners all over Havana, and the police used to break up the parties because they thought we were starting a protest." Sound familiar? Kids called "Rapper's Delight" "Apenejé," because they had noidea what Wondermike's "I said a hip, hop, a hibby . . . " meant. Unlike Pablo, few people had the opportunity to collect rap albums throughout the 1980s, so the music's popularity grew at a slow pace. But in the past seven years, hip-hop has exploded to the far reaches of all the provinces, even the rural tobacco farms of Pinar Del Río and the citrus groves of Isle Of Youth.

The loss of Soviet subsidy in 1990 sent Cuba through various stages of what's called a "special period." After rations were reorganized, the black market flourished; then the dollar became legal, but Cubans couldn't legally buy goods with dollars. When they finally could, there was nothing to buy. But now there are plenty of things to buy, to the point where capitalism flourishes everywhere—if you have the dollars, which is exactly what the revolution tried to avoid. Classes. Now almost every industrialized country in the world is doing business with Cuba, except the U.S. Ché Guevara's face is for sale on ashtrays and berets in the markets, so now tourists can buy a little part of the revolution and bring it home with them.

The younger generation of Cubans has little or no memory of a successful revolution. Julio Cárdenas a/k/a El Hip-Hop Kid, of the rap group RCA (Los Rapperos Crazy De Alamar), makes 35 cents a day working at a fishery. So after nine years of hustling, when DMX comes along talkin' about money, clothes, and 'hos, shit is tempting.

In the U.S., hip-hop originates from marginalized communities. Since the triumph of the revolution, because of the U.S. blockade, Cuba has become like one big marginalized community, and hip-hop tries to express that isolation in a world context, the same way kids in the Bronx did in the 1970s.

Arguably Cuban rumba, a combination of chants, bragging, storytelling, and improvisationto African-derived rhythms and instruments, was the first "rap" in the Americas, far predating Jamaican toasting. Although rumba can still be heard all over Cuba—at private ceremonies, performances, and public tourist attractions—rap is now the preferred música of Cuban revolutionary youth. Every year, the Cuban national baseball team chooses a popular salsa song to play before the National Championship game. But this year, when they played against the Baltimore Orioles, they chose a rap song byDoble Filo, and had the whole stadium rapping with them—including Fidel Castro himself.

That's right, Fidel Castro is the first world leader to embrace hip-hop. In 1997, the questionthat came up at the Cuban Rap Colloquium was "Is rap revolutionary or counterrevolutionary?" Well, I think they've made up their minds.This past June, Cuba's Minister of Culture, Abel Prieto, officially recognized rap as a valid and important part of Cuban culture that must be supported by the people. In a ceremony on Cuban national television, he stated that "We have to support our Cuban rappers because this is the next generation of Cubans and they are saying powerful things with this art. I am responsible for giving this generation the freedom to claim their power culturally." And he delivered. For the previous four years, the Cuban Hip-Hop Festival had been supported with next to nothing—fundsleft over after Alamar's Casa De Cultura budget was exhausted. The old sound system worked half the time; lights went out. If you were a rapper, you had to get there yourself. But this year, an estimated $50,000 worth of goods and services went into the festival, an astronomical amount for a nontourist cultural event. The Anfiteatro De Alamar has never seen such a professional sound and light system, let alone monitors on the stage. Rappers from all over the country were flown in and given lodging and meals, all with government money. El Hip-Hop Kid laughed, "Damn, all these years we didn't get anything, and now we get driven around in a bus, and we got beans, yuca, and bistec for rehearsals! They're really taking us seriously. I think you could say things are changing."

 

Indeed they are. Finally Cuban rap is getting play on national stations like Radio Rebelde and Radio Taino. Groups like Primera Base and Proyecto F have toured and recorded songs in Europe. So has Instinto, Cuba's most famous female rap group, who rap about feminist issues, the environment, and partying. And this year, for the first time, Cuban rap records are being played along with North American ones at clubs.

Believe it or not, the first North American rapper that performed on the island was California's Paris, in 1992. Over 200,000 people attended, and they still talk about it today. There was a six-year absence of yanqui rappers until Mos Def, Talib Kweli, DJ Hi-Tek, and Dead Prez's M-1 performed at last year's festival. This year, late in August, Common performed with DJ Crossfader on a bill of 30 Cuban rap groups. And, as with all of the U.S. rappers, his lyrics had to be approved before he could perform. I wish they would do that on Hot 97.

At this year's Hip-Hop Festival colloquiums, the themes were Ancestors, Antecedents, and Contemporaneity in Hip-Hop. Speakers included writers, rappers, poets, and people active in government. Cuban poet Ismael Gonzalez Castañer spoke on ancestors: "The rapper isn't an extension of the storyteller in Africa, he is the storyteller from Africa. The only difference is that his attitude is shaped by where we are—America."

All rap and r&b from the U.S. goes under the umbrella name la moña,where rap is simply el rap. And like white kids in Iowa, some Cuban rappers have co-opted the irresistible gangsta attitude. Some raps are about guns, drugs, and violence, although for the most part the only violence the rappers have experienced is U.S. biological warfare. But videos are powerful. Andas most Cuban households have VCRs or access to them, every style is imitated. There are Cuban versions of Busta Rhymes, R. Kelly, Naughty ByNature, Mobb Deep, TLC—you name it, they got it. There's even a group of female vegans who wear clown hats and rap on stilts.

But not all Cuban hip-hop is imitation U.S. In fact, people that front like they're on some North American ghetto shit get dissed as being Miki-Miki—derived from "Mickey Mouse," no doubt. Groups like Amenaza, Doble Filo, and Los Rapperos Crazy De Alamar rap about racism in Cuba, police harassment, the effect capitalism is having on people's behavior. And also on jineteras—derived from the word "jockey", jineteras is now used to classify young women who "ride the backs" of the European tourists (tembas)to get some dollars (guanikiki)sometimes in exchange for sex. Groups like Madera Limpia rap to live traditional folkloric Cuban instruments like catá, marímbula,and cajón.

From the eastern part of the island, closer in proximity to Jamaica, groups from Guantánamo and Santiago infuse dancehall styles into their raps. A few years ago, an act from the remote Isla De La Juventud called Dos X Dos performed at the festival. It was kind of like Vanilla Ice performing at Millbrook Projects. They had no credibility, being from a rural province wherethe main occupation is agriculture, particularly grapefruits. The audience booed them off stage with jeers of "Grapefruit! Get the hell out of here. Go home, grapefruits!" Well this year, Dos X Dos came back with a vengeance. Decked out in Fubu, Tommy Hil, and stocking caps brought by relatives in Miami or bought off tourists, they opened up their act like a bad skit off a Master P album, and in the thickest of Cuban accents proclaimed, "Wasup nigger motherfucker! Shit Fucker Motherfucker Bitch! Yeah man! Represent Motherfucker Nigger!"

It recalled the time, at a previous festival, when a group of black rappers got on stage and prefaced a rap tribute to Malcolm X with the following: "This is a homage to Malcolm X, because he is our brother and we relate to black people all over the world, even the United States, and we feel sorry for our black brothers in the United States who have to live the way that they do. They have it the worst of the worst." Thesong talked of inspiration and resistance, yet the chorus went: "Malcolm, we wanna be just like you nigger, a nigger like you. . . . "

 

Just about every North American in the audience was appalled, including some exiled New Afrikan Freedom Fighters. A fierce debate about the N-word's use in hip-hop ensued. And the question was asked, "If you Americans are so bothered by Cubans using the word, then why are you exporting it like it was hot shit?"

Young Cuban rap promoter Ariel Fernandez said, "We have to be careful that we don't create rap for commercial purposes, because it represents us culturally all over the world." Ismael Gonzalez Castañer went on, "The violence that permeates North American rap is real, because the violence there is real. No rapper here has ever experienced that violence and never will, because we don't have the problems that they have, thank God! The question is, now that we have embraced hip-hop, what are we going to do with it in regards to the revolution?" As one New Afrikan exile said at the colloquium, "For one thing, the revolution ain't gonna have no 'Squeeze yo titties if you love hip-hop."'


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